Fullerenes, a form of solid carbon distinct from diamond and graphite, owe their discovery to a supersonic jet—but not of the airplane variety. At Rice University in 1985 the late Richard E. Smalley, Robert F. Curl and Harold W. Kroto (visiting from the University of Sussex in England), along with graduate students James R. Heath and Sean C. O’Brien, were studying carbon with a powerful tool that Smalley had helped pioneer: supersonic jet laser spectroscopy. In this analytical system, a laser vaporizes bits of a sample; the resulting gas, which consists of clusters of atoms in various sizes, is then cooled with helium and piped into an evacuated chamber as a jet. The clusters expand supersonically, which cools and stabilizes them for study.
In their experiments with graphite, the Rice team recorded an abundance of carbon clusters in which each contained the equivalent of 60 atoms. It puzzled them because they had no idea how 60 atoms could have arranged themselves so stably. They pondered the conundrum during two weeks of discussion, frequently over Mexican food, before hitting on the solution: one carbon atom must lie at each vertex of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons arranged like the panels of a soccer ball. They named the molecule “buckminsterfullerene,” in tribute to Buckminster Fuller’s similar geodesic domes. Their discovery sparked research that led to elongated versions called carbon nanotubes, which Sumio Ijima of NEC described in a seminal 1991 paper.